After one of his personal bodyguards was shot to death by a Blackwater USA security contractor last Christmas Eve, Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi assured the U.S. ambassador that he was trying to keep the incident out of the public eye.
Nevertheless, Abdul-Mahdi told the ambassador, he hoped the contractor would be brought to justice because Iraqis would not understand how a foreigner could kill an Iraqi and be spirited back home a free man.
Seven months later, the contractor has not been charged with any crime.
Internal correspondence between the U.S. and Iraqi governments over the Dec. 24 shooting, released to The Virginian-Pilot under the Freedom of Information Act, sheds additional light on an international incident that could test the murky legal status of civilian contractors in Iraq.
By one recent count, some 180,000 such contractors are now working in Iraq - more than the number of U.S. combat troops. Yet more than four years after the U.S. invasion, not one has been charged with a violent crime against an Iraqi.
One reason: Contractors operate in a legal gray area in which it's uncertain whether they're subject to civilian law, military law or neither.
The shooting was first reported by The Pilot in January. The shooter was one of about 1,000 armed security contractors working in Iraq for Blackwater, the Moyock, N.C.-based private military company, under a multimillion-dollar contract with the State Department to protect American diplomatic personnel.
It was a relatively rare event: a fatal shooting inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
The shooter, who has not been identified, was off duty at the time.
Blackwater's general counsel, Andrew Howell, questioned about the incident at a congressional hearing in February, said the company fired the man and flew him home. He said Blackwater was cooperating with a Justice Department investigation of the shooting.
The victim was an Iraqi assigned to protect Abdul-Mahdi, the country's Shiite vice president. Iraq has two vice presidents, a Sunni Muslim and a Shiite Muslim.
Tariq Najem Abdullah, chief of staff to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, complained about the shooting in a Dec. 28 letter to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, calling it murder.
Underscoring the sensitivity of the case, Abdul-Mahdi told then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad that 'he had tried to keep the issue from the public eye and had not disclosed to the press the nationality of the suspect,' according to a Jan. 8 memo from the U.S. Embassy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"The ambassador assured Abdul-Mahdi that the U.S. took the incident extremely seriously, was undertaking an investigation, and was reviewing jurisdiction, and that the Embassy was working with the company in question to achieve an adequate offer of compensation," according to the memo.
"Abdul-Mahdi said that justice was even more important than compensation," the memo went on, "noting that Iraqis would not understand how a foreigner could kill an Iraqi and return a free man to his own country."
Critics say that is exactly what happens when contractors commit acts of violence against Iraqis: They are whisked home and never prosecuted.
Erica Razook, a legal fellow at Amnesty International USA, told a congressional subcommittee last month that contractors operate in a "culture of impunity" with "virtually no control or oversight."
"A contractor can shoot an Iraqi civilian in the street and face no consequences," she said.
Blackwater President Gary Jackson said Tuesday that to the best of his knowledge, the shooting is still being investigated. He said the shooter was flown home at the direction of the U.S. government.
"We have supported the investigation, and if a grand jury sends it to trial, Blackwater will support that as well,"Jackson said. "As we have said all along, we strongly support holding responsible anyone who engages in misconduct."
The company would neither confirm nor deny that it has offered compensation to the victim's family.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the case.
Several members of Congress have called for greater accountability for contractors.
Earlier this month, the House Appropriations Committee approved a measure from Rep. David Price, D-N.C., directing the Justice Department to report to Congress on the number of incidents of alleged contractor misconduct, investigations undertaken, and criminal cases opened and closed.
"We open our newspapers and see allegations on a regular basis of violent abuse by rogue contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan," Price said in a statement. "But the Justice Department has thus far barely lifted a finger to investigate or prosecute these crimes."
The Senate's nine freshman Democrats, including Jim Webb of Virginia, have called for a Commission on Wartime Contracting that would, among other things, explore legal questions surrounding the use of contractors.
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